Story art by Premee Mohamed.
From the editor:
The Sulusk is a special guest on the Johnny Carson show. Its body looks like broken glass, and its voice emerges through a staticky translator to say: one human of their choosing will become ambassador to Earth. At home, Sally immediately knows they speak of her infant daughter—even if no one else believes her.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Canada. Her work has been published by Automata Review, Mythic Delirium, Pseudopod, Nightmare Magazine, and many others.
From the author: A perfect baby, a little house on the military base where they work with the aliens, and suddenly, one day, a secret message.
THE MOVING STARS
By Premee Mohamed
They had to knock me out to get her out of me, which was for the best; I was asking to be knocked out for quite a while by that point. All that sweating and grunting and gritted teeth (I cracked a molar, for heaven's sake) and then darkness and then there she was, my daughter, swimming up through the layers of gray light, a strange little pink fish that someone had placed into my arms.
What happened? I asked. She got stuck, said one of the nurses, and patted my hand. Backwards and upside down, poor little mite. Sometimes happens with the first. But isn't she perfect!
Of course she was perfect; she was perfect. What's her name? said someone distantly, but I drifted away again into the twilight. When I awoke, the general himself had sent flowers and a chocolate cake, protected under a clear celluloid dome, like a flying saucer.
I went with 'Daphne,' and Robert didn't object. I had worried that he'd put his foot down as usual and insist on a family name, something our mothers had suggested, but they were all terrible — terrible, he agreed, laughing. Augusta was domineering; Myrtle was too horticultural, and anyway, the kids would call her Myrtle the Turtle no matter how she looked.
In the car, he said, "We could have named her Frederick."
"My cousin Mary had a mix-up at the hospital a few years ago and her little girl ended up named Mike. Nice, right?"
"Oh come on," I said, smiling uncertainly. "They would have changed the paperwork."
"Nope. Once it's on the birth certificate, that's where it stays."
"You're pulling my leg."
"Would I lie to you?"
The other wives on the base dropped by, and passed the squirming bundle between them, cooing, eating my tiny sandwiches. I watched them and felt myself torn between wishing them gone, and wishing they would never leave. Two years of hearing them whisper behind my back, hearing my name as softly hissed as a snake under the porch. As if I could not hear them, or did not care; as if Robert's ultraclassified job with our alien visitors were some kind of soundproof shield between me and their friendly, averted faces. I wanted friends, but I could not unhear the whispers. Did you hear? She's never even. Doesn't know how to. There's nothing she. Straight out of high school. A pretty face, but.
That week I shut down the robo-vac and the handi-mop and cleaned with a vengeance myself, scrubbing and sweeping and pulling my stitches loose; I bought clothes like theirs, forest greens, saturated stripes, grainy tweeds. I repapered the nursery in primose-yellow, a subtle pattern of stripes and flowers, spirals and suns.
Between bouts, aching, I stared out the window at the shuttles and the spiked clusters of the Sulusk ships, landing butterfly-light at the last moment, extruding long dainty legs. The Sulusk themselves I never saw; but of course, one didn't, without the special goggles, and Robert needed our only pair for work. Against the spring sky, they were no more than a smudge, a blur that made you rub your eyes, like one of the clear floaters that swam across one's vision.
I thought of the movies Robert and I had half-watched while we were courting: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Invaders from Mars. We giggled and flinched and screamed at Dewey's Drive-In; and I asked how could they still make these, when we had lived so long with real extraterrestrials? And he only laughed and tossed popcorn at me, as if I were a puppy that could be distracted with food. Maybe it was something so obvious he thought he didn't need to say it; but I never did figure it out.
Maybe Daphne would one day. She was going to be smart, I could tell; she cried thoughtfully, measuring out the amounts for when she truly needed a hand; her eyes weren't blue like mine or hazel like Robert's, but a cinematic green, the green of meadows, something a girl might run over in a twirly dress. Gloomily I let the visitors say it: "Oh, she's going to break hearts someday!" As if to break it were the only thing they could think of doing with a heart; as if you could say that with a straight face to a baby. But I had nothing better to contribute to the conversation.
I stopped caring about other’s opinions when she was six months old, when everything changed, when — and forgive me my disbelieving laughter — a Sulusk went on Johnny Carson. Before the heap of tumbled blocks and broken glass on the couch even spoke, before Johnny so much as opened his mouth, I knew what they would speak of. The knowledge arrived as whole and complete in my brain as an unbroken egg, a smooth shell enclosing everything I needed.
"Look at this, Sally," my husband said somewhere, his voice distant and faint over the hammering of my heart. "They just put a filter right on the camera. Ain't that something." I held Daphne to my chest, and felt the flutter of her little pulse, and thought: It's true. It's true. What they're going to say, it's true.
"Now what are we talking about here, sir?" laughed Johnny, the audience laughing too, easy in their seats. "Do you mean to say it's like a treasure hunt? Like Easter eggs, folks, that's what we're talking here."
Not hidden! the alien insisted, static crackling from its translator.
No, I thought. Not hidden. Not a treasure hunt, only treasure, stark and obvious on the sands, the only thing for miles. The play we did in high school: Treasure Island. Oh, I know you!
"So, an ambassador, but we won't know who it is," Johnny said, and I shook my head. I spread my fingers over Daphne's hair, the baby-fine curls. It's her. It's her. It's you, little one; they did not say how we would know, and that's how I know. Because where else would this information have come from, if that was not what they intended?
Yes, the alien said. You'll know. On the screen, its angles blurred and ran with my grateful tears.
"It's her," I said. "Robert. It's Daphne. It's our baby. The ambassador."
He laughed. "Wouldn't that be something, hey?"
"Oh, sure honey. Guess we'll just wait and see, hm? Like winning the base sweepstakes. That reminds me, did you buy a ticket this month?"
He hated to be badgered about things, but I knew I would have to keep bringing it up. I told myself: It’s related to his job, isn’t it? A go-between for the scientists and the generals, the ones who seek to know the aliens and the ones who only seek to know their technology. Will they help us, or blow us up? Robert made them sit down and talk about it. The stories he told when he came home were fascinating, and every few months he'd say, "I should take you to one of the labs, sweetie; you won't know what you're looking at, but it's a hoot to watch it all working!"
"How do you know I wouldn't know what I was looking at?" I asked once, and he laughed, laughed till he doubled over, and did not reply. I was insulted, a little; he knew I was interested in the aliens, he knew I had read my Dad’s Popular Mechanics. It was more than ‘a hoot’ to me.
The day after the Carson show, I put Daphne in her buggy for a walk around the base after Robert went to work. All around us, the heavy ancient oaks and chestnuts heaved in a sea of tan and beige and brown and blush-pink, dropping leaves heavy and fast on the sidewalks that crunched under our wheels. I waited for the clear, sharp fall air to pass through me and wash away whatever nonsense had come over my yesterday. How could I have called it knowledge? How could knowledge arrive from nowhere? That's not how science works, Robert would have said. Nothing drops from a clear blue sky.
"Except you," I whispered to Daphne. "Except you, little ambassador." When would they come, when would they try to claim her? When she was my age? When she was an old woman, stooped with numbers and figures like the scientists on the base? Just as I thought it, I saw Dr. Khan across the path from me; I raised my hand, and she waved back, a pale flash of palm.
I fought down a sudden urge to wheel across the road and talk to her. But what good would that do? She wouldn't laugh, like Robert — but she wouldn't believe me either. No one would.
But she had been there when the aliens made first contact, I remembered suddenly. Right here, not a hundred yards away, at Runway C. Robert hadn't been called till the next day, rushing over with his briefcase full of printouts and papers; he hadn't been among the first, but the second. I always wondered whether he disliked her for that. And yet, he was courteous to her at functions, he had danced with her at the Christmas party.
She was walking away, her dark-orange dress disappearing into the curtain of leaves. I gripped the buggy handle and hurried across the road. "Dr. Khan!"
"Ah, Mrs. Greene," she said. Her peppered, golden face was seamed from the centre out, like bicycle spokes. Under silvery brows, her eyes were alert and black as a bird's. "Hello, Daphne. Are we sleeping through the night yet, young lady?"
"Soon, I hope," I said. "They say to let her cry it out, but..." I trailed off, helplessly. "Did... did you see Carson last night?"
She raised an eyebrow. "No."
"They invited a Sulusk. I... it said... they have an ambassador to Earth. Not an alien, but a human. And..."
"Fascinating," she said. "They've suggested as much to us. Without giving any indication of how they intended to select such a person. Naturally, we all immediately thought of the science group..."
"Of course," she said, lightly surprised.
"Well, I... but supposing they wanted to start younger."
"A student, you mean? I suppose that's possible. There are prodigies everywhere."
Younger than that, I thought. In the cradle. No, in the womb. Where aliens do not belong. Well, maybe they don't belong anywhere in this world — but they are here anyway, and we cannot send them away. "They said we would know, but they didn't say how we would know, Dr. Khan."
"Well," she chuckled, "their language is exceedingly complex, and seems to involve frequencies in a multi-coded supralinguistic syntax that we may never comprehend; hence the interpreter boxes. As for this ambassador, I'm sure it will take all of our collected resources to figure out who it might be."
I mumbled something about not wishing to keep her from her important work. She bade us farewell separately; I always liked that about her. The other wives mocked her, but she spoke to babies, children, dogs, as if we were all at her level, all deserving of her respect. If I could have confessed the truth to anyone, it would have been her. But she saw me, accurately, as just another warm body on the base. Twenty-three, uneducated, a housewife, a mother, with nothing to contribute to the research or the project or the smooth running of the complex except to keep my husband fed and clean.
As I walked away, my eyes filled slowly with tears. Well, what about it? I told myself sternly as I kept walking. What part of it's untrue? Remember what Mother used to tell you. It's not an insult if it's a fact, Sally.
The weeks passed, a brief hot spell, a brief cold spell, awakening one morning to hear what sounded like hailstones hitting the roof, but it was only leaves plummeting from the branches all at once, as if they had rehearsed it, like a flyover. And then fall was truly over and it was winter, and something came over me, pinning me in place, a blanket so heavy and soundless that I could barely hear Daphne when she sobbed in the night, and I nodded at Robert when he spoke to me in the mornings as I made his eggs, and the mouths moved on the TV and said nothing I could understand. And still I was not believed.
At last when the snow began to fall in earnest, Robert took me to the base doctor, who asked me questions I could barely understand about things I could understand even less. I nodded where it seemed appropriate.
"Do you cry more than usual?" he said, and I said, "I feel like I've forgotten how," and he and Robert glanced at each other.
Time to take away the breast, he said, and I said no, and he said yes, yes; it'll be all right, honey, we have pills for this kind of thing. What kind of thing, I said, and they sent me home without an answer, with a little vial of red and yellow candy-like pills, like apples or even peaches in colour and shape. Robert bought glass bottles and rubber nipples in town, and I set up a station to scrub, rinse, dry next to the sink. "I'll leave all this up to you," he said. "My hands are too big; I don't want to break any." "Of course, darling."
I expected Daphne to hate the bottles, the strange shapes in her mouth, but she took it with her usual silent and dignified resignation, as if understanding that this was what it would take to grow up big and strong. The Sulusk, I explained, would approve..
What about her was alien, I wondered; would it be known? I checked her with every bath and diaper change, looking for the crown birthmark from fairy stories when I was a young girl; for something luminous or sharp or otherwise strange. Was she jaundiced? Was it the colour of the nursery? I asked Robert to use the car to go to town, buy new wallpaper, or paint even, and he said to wait on it; wait till spring, when the light was better. But he could not quite hide the look on his face. He knew I would not go on my own; my impulse to wander had, just as he'd said, faded after the marriage. The last impulsive thing I'd done was signing that register at the church.
Now, on the last shreds of impulse, I mixed canned tomatoes in my meatloaf; I parted my hair on the left instead of the right. What remained of the girl I used to be balled up inside me, compact and glowing. I thought of her like the Sulusk ships, which carry their energy outside them like a spider's bag of eggs, a dense sphere filled with blue flame. Unimaginably heavy, as powerful as she ever was, but something to carry, not to use. I felt like a ship stuck on Earth, my spindly legs digging into the turf. And Robert still didn't believe me about the baby.
The doctors visited; the wives visited; the doctors and wives visited together. We sat in the living room and played with the baby, and the chill winter sun shone on the coffee table. Quietly, the doctor said I should think about going away for a little while; that the base, the proximity to the aliens, the guns, the tanks, the fumes, was not good for me or the little one; you say she keeps bringing up some connection between the little one and the aliens. Could be, said Robert; she’s obsessing about it, I think. You'll feel better if you both get away, Sal. Maybe stay with your mother for a little while. Have you met her? I wanted to ask, but I nodded instead. It's either that or Rockyview, said the doctor, and Robert said: Well we'll need someone to look after the baby if she goes to Rockyview. Not necessarily, someone else said.
They didn't say how I would go; they didn't say when. The appropriate paperwork needed to be signed. Robert might need time off work. The shock, you see, of living alone. But that night I stood in the nursery as the moon moved gracefully across the floor, time slowing, stopping, then speeding up, white light driving over the pale square tiles at my feet. Finally, I leaned over the crib and pulled my daughter into my arms, and wrapped her in a blanket. Her heavy head lolled on my shoulder; she murmured contentedly into the hollow of my neck, half-awakening. She did not sleep through the night just yet; none of us did, except Robert, who slept like a log. As I shut the front door I heard the grunt and hiss of his snore, cut off abruptly by the clicked lock.
Outside was bitterly cold, and silent as a church; in fact there was something holy about it, the quiet, the snow, the stars. In the dark sky tiny blue motes whizzed past — Sulusk shuttles zipping between earth and sky, landing pads and the great Hiveship that hovered invisibly in the darkness. You could almost pray. Watch over me, I thought, even though they always said they didn't.
I didn't have a plan, but once we were warm and safe inside the Chevy I found myself not caring. Theft, I thought: it was Robert's car, of course. We had talked about buying me one, but that was far in the future, when we would have more money, when the kids were older (what kids? did I sign up for more than one? would they knock me out again? no, no, I would never go through that again). When they weren't talking about locking me up. "Locking us up," I whispered to Daphne, as we backed out of the driveway.
Where will we go? What will we do? How will we live? I entertained myself wondering about these things as we glided through the gates and out into the dark countryside. How will we keep ourselves safe and secret? God, Sally, you’ve really gotten yourself into it this time. What were you thinking? Nothing seemed real in the black-and-white moonlight; I felt trapped in the television, whispering over the snowy streets to the music of The Twilight Zone.
Next to me, Daphne was silent, staring out at the moving stars. In our new life I would, I thought, take her outside, and sit her on the porch of our house (no: let's say balcony of our apartment? I'll need a big city to hide in) and point out the precious few stars I knew. I remembered the parties in which drunken bigshots pulled me outside, babbling about telescopes, measurement, diffraction gratings, and pointed at them with slurred letters and numbers. When some men get drunk, they fight; others name the stars. I had never gotten drunk. I wondered what it would be like.
The heavy car slewed on the slick roads. I wasn’t afraid; the Sulusk wouldn’t let anything happen to the ambassador, would they? They hadn’t so far. I watched the countryside roll by, tiny dark houses with a single light burning on the porch. We stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere, hours from home, with the Bel-Air whining on its last nibbles of electricity. I had to honk for a long time before the station attendant appeared from the little steel shack.
"Rapid charge, please," I said.
He was young, maybe younger than me, and his white-and-red uniform was crumpled and grease-stained. The propped-open door revealed the interior of the shack, lit with a single bare golden bulb like a candle, resembling for a moment a library — the ranks of snacks and canned drinks glowing like shelved books. A large gray radio sat next to the cash register. What time was it? All this newfangled technology and they couldn't put some kind of clock in a car's dashboard?
I took Daphne into the shack, shivering even in the few moments of cold, and gave her a tour. "Look, that's beef jerky! And that's a tin of motor oil! That's what Daddy's car needs to eat, along with electricity! The aliens gave us that. We were burning all sorts of things to make our cars go just ten years ago! You'll have to know all this, darling, when you are working for them."
When the station attendant came back in, several things happened at once: he mumbled something about the charge; Daphne squawked into my ear; the light flickered; and the radio bleeped an emergency broadcast tone, followed by a gentle urgent voice speaking about a woman, with a name very like mine, with a baby, in a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air ("What a coincidence," I almost said), who had gone missing, probably kidnapped, carjacked, from the Meyer-Sulusk II military base. If any information became available, please call the base directly; emergency operators were standing by.
There was a telephone on the wall, navy-blue and cream enamel, not very different, actually, from Robert's car; I watched the boy's eyes go to it. Still he did not speak. His face writhed; too much was being asked of him. The boy looked at the phone then began to back towards the door.
"Wait," I said, but he didn't, and I followed him out, trying to explain myself, that I was not this woman, I am someone quite different, taking my baby to visit, let me think, visit my aunt, my maiden aunt in Connecticut, but he walked around the far side of the car and locked up the charger.
"Come on inside," he said, coming around the car with hands outstretched as if to a strange dog. "Ma'am. And let's... well, it's an awful cold night, and... and...let's just wait for the police in here, where it's warm..."
He didn't dare touch me. The men around me often couldn't: it's the baby, better than any shield, better than a suit of armour. I easily dodged his outstretched fingers, took my handbag from the car, and walked away. My ears sang as if I were about to faint, a high neverending keen muffled under my pounding heart. Fear, terrible fear, and something else.
The snow was shallow on the flats, thigh-high in the ruts; I staggered and panted through the furrowed fields, heading for the woods visible just as a dark splotch on the flat glass of the moonlit snow. What lay beyond there, I could not say; it was land I had never seen even in daylight. Daphne was a hot bundle against my chest, her breath pluming into the air like feathers as I gasped and roared, and sank to my knees and rose again.
The other wives do fitness programmes at home over the radio. The other wives eat cottage cheese on lettuce and grow crisp and delicate like fall leaves. The other wives and the other husbands. The others, the others. The others who fit neatly into their neat little lives, and who would flit over this snow like faeries or fauns. Well maybe in this copycat, cookie-cutter, casserole-cut-throat world, you need one thing that doesn't fit in, and darling, let it be us.
I made it into the woods and kept going. Colour bloomed without warning, checking me as if someone stamped on my brakes. The snow at my feet blinked like an eye: blue then green, green then blue. My eyes, Daphne's eyes. Slowly, my head dragged upwards: of course. The Sulusk. The ship couldn't land in the trees.
As I watched it hover, the calm blue flames beneath it surging back and forth, shouts began to echo through the woods. "Mrs. Greene!" "Mrs. Greene!" "Sally!"
Both the police and the aliens had come for us. I sobbed out a laugh, and pulled the baby closer, protecting her head from the ship's updraft. If we stayed quiet, here amongst the dense old trees, the police might not find us. They knew approximately where we were, not precisely. Like a game, like childhood.
"Sally! My God!"
Someone tried to take Daphne from me; I clung harder, and the unseen form relented, taking my shoulders instead, half-carrying and half-dragging me out of the trees and into the light of snow and flame, headlights and flashlights, wobbling across the snow and up onto my face like little scampering animals.
I peered at my captor: George, the elderly guard from the base. He hadn't even looked at me when I went through the gates a few hours ago, only at the car. He would have wanted to join the search, so that if he could not clear his name of guilt at his oversight, he could clear his conscience by finding us alive.
Robert staggered through the tangled grass and branches, snow spraying around him, and collided with all three of us, his arms around my shoulders. Trapped between us, Daphne yelped with surprise, her first sound in hours.
"I thought... I thought..."
"You'll freeze, Robert. Where's your good coat?"
"I couldn't find it," he wheezed. "Sally, good God, what were you thinking? What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?"
A police car had parked in the field, at a hilarious angle — they must have stopped on one of the ruts, and then just tilted over. It was running, probably warm; Robert took Daphne and began to walk towards it. I was shivering now that I had stopped moving, and it would be so nice to get into it, be safe, be warm, be driven back...
... back to where they would take my baby, and lock me up for a hundred years. I jerked away instinctively, sending us both sprawling. George helped me up. "Look! Look at them. The aliens! They came because I was right!"
"Right about what?" Robert cried.
"About Daphne! She's the ambassador!"
"They came because General Gibson asked them to assist in the search!" he shouted, and begins to drag us towards the car. "Get in. You'll freeze!"
"But she is! She is!"
"Stop talking like that!"
"I demand!" I screamed into his face, and wrenched Daphne from his hands. "I demand that you believe me for once! Just once! Once ever, about anything!"
"All right, all right, sure! Now get in! I brought your pills, and there's a thermos on the — "
His next words vanished in a roar of displaced air. The Sulusk ship touched down on the farmer's field — I hoped he would not mind, in the spring, the burned patch of soil.
My stomach churned; for the first time in months I felt doubt: They did not come for me, they came for the general, they came for Robert. She was not the ambassador, it was someone else, and I really was a silly, wicked woman, and something was wrong with my brain, and the authorities should take her away, they should put me away, they came here to help us and I had wasted their precious time by running away in the middle of the night...
The voice was ponderous, fuzzed a little with the translator's edge. The first alien emerged from the craft, followed by three more, blurred darknesses through which the stars could still faintly be seen.
"I... I did know."
Silence. No one else spoke. A few tufts of grass flamed under the snow, quickly crackled out. Nearby, someone honked their horn, perhaps at the service station from which I had just fled. Had everyone heard what they said? Had anyone? I stared up at the leading smudge, recalling what I had seen on the television: a heap of glassy blocks, like a piece of coal viewed close. You sent me the knowledge, I wanted to say; and everybody thought I had lost my damn mind. You never asked my consent. It was an Annunciation. Is that where you got the idea? You never asked if it was all right. Did you ask her?
Let us take her. Raise her with us. On the homeship. To prepare.
"Sally!" Robert whispered. "Hey. They know what they're doing. They..."
I shook his arm off and clutched Daphne tighter, backing away. Would they overpower me? Take her? Over my dead body. The aliens shuffled closer, crowding us, smothering us in a strange odour of electricity and rotting grass. Stifled in the blankets perhaps, Daphne squirmed and freed her face; they peered down at the strong little fist. Why her? Why not someone else? But they knew; and that is all they gave to me, that I too knew.
And her too; maybe she knew what she was too. If they could do it to me they could do it to her.
"No," I said, gently. "Thanks. She needs to know about humans first. When she's ready, she'll go with you."
A long pause, perhaps while they consulted with each other in that language that we could not yet speak. Then finally:
Yes. Acceptable. Thank you.
Everyone exhaled in relief. At last I allowed myself to be bundled into the car, and sit in the warmth while they jerked and hopped us out of the ditch, and eventually back to the road; I laughed when I saw how close I had been to the station, when I thought I had been running for hours. In the front seat, Robert wept. Later, I thought, I'll ask him why, and he will deny it. But I will tell Daphne about tonight, and I will not leave that out.
Spring came, and the sun returned, and every week I pored over and, mostly, smugly, discarded invitations from the other wives in our mailbox. Robert helped me paint over the nursery, black with white stars. "How's she gonna grow up in a black bedroom?" he fretted. "It's so dark!"
"It's not dark," I said.
He opened his mouth, closed it again. I picked up my brush and added another star.
This story originally appeared in Drabblecast #402.